I sat in the car thinking about clouds. Wisps obscured Huguenot Head, the spruce-covered, orange granite knob that sat hunched across ME 3. The foggy haze—or was it hazy fog?--bleached the colors from the mountain. The orange granite appeared pink or even gray behind the veil of air. The spruce looked ashen. Higher, clouds like heaps of plowed snow melted in the late-winter sun. Nothing moved, but from moment to moment the clouds and colors shifted and changed. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope full of smoke.
I opened the car door and was buffeted by the wind. It howled up the valley, across The Tarn, between Dorr and Champlain Mountains and rocked me back on my heels. Quickly, I grabbed my pack and headed toward the trail. I crossed The Tarn's outlet on cut-granite stepping stones. The lake's surface at the near end was covered with a thick layer of broken, dried sedges. Thick brown straws driven by the wind against the rocky shore where they rose and fell in rhythm with my breathing.
Across the stream, the trail rose through bare woods on evenly spaced stairs littered with dry oak leaves. The first step—a wide granite slab covered with pinkish lichen—had the trail's name chiselled neatly into it: Kurt Diederich's Climb. This trail was built by George Dorr a hundred years ago, before Acadia became a national park. When Acadia was made a national monument in 1916 by President Wilson, it was centered around Sieur de Monts Spring and Dorr Mountain (then called Dry Mountain). Many of the trails on the mountains northeast are among the oldest in the park. Several have extensive stonework.
The stairs I climbed from The Tarn, switchbacking up the steep slope, were smooth and even. Their handiwork impressive. In 1981 Kurt Diederich's Climb, along with Emery, Kane, Homan's and Schiff Paths (all part of my hike), received special protection from the Interior Department because of their historical significance.
None of that mattered to me as I climbed away from The Tarn, protected from the wind by the bulk of the mountain. The trail passed ice-covered cliffs and flat-topped slabs of bedrock with views of Great Meadow, Frenchman's Bay, and the surrounding mountains.
I reached the Schiff Path and slabbed north through twisted oak that overhung the trail. The understory was leafless blueberry bushes, that held the fallen oak leaves and scratched at my legs. I descended on Emery Path—more granite stairs, more cliffs, more bare rock. I began this hike thinking about clouds, but after a mile of walking it was rock that dominated my thinking. In the winter, hiking is mostly about water: snow and ice. Other times of the year, wildflowers or the changing leaves hog the spotlight. But in the late winter and early spring—especially in a dry El Nino year like this one—all there is to see is the rock. Granite steps, granite cliff, loose rocks littering the woods, glacier-scoured domes of granite bedrock. Large-grained igneous rock that is rough to the touch, offering fine footing even when wet. In orange and gray and pink and tan and covered with swirls of lichen. Worn smooth by glaciers and a hundred years of hikers.
Sure, I saw beautiful ice-covered cliffs and navigated sections of trail that were frozen streams of cloudy white ice. Here and there, in protected copses hid small, hard banks of snow. And overhead the clouds shifted; one moment blocking the sun, the next sending warm shafts of golden light to brighten the bare trees and my tousled hair. But it was the granite.
I descended between vertical faces of the rock on neat, even stone steps. In one place, Dorr had built a small patio on top of a cliff with a view of Great Meadow. Beyond its winter brown, the Porcupine Islands rode spruce-covered black in the rough bay beneath a bruised fog bank that hung, inexplicably high in the air. It appeared as substantial as a distant mountain range of snow-covered peaks and dark forested valleys.
Down off the mountain, I followed a trail through mature hemlocks over mud and rusty needles. I climbed again on the North Ridge Trail. As I navigated the ice-covered bedrock, Cadillac Mountain's cliffy flank came in and out of view behind the shifting clouds. The trail wound from one granite slab to another, climbing through dry scrub pines. I could hear the wind howling through the stiff pines higher on the mountain.
Near the summit, the trail leveled out and the wind found me. The wind shook the twisted pines. It slammed into me with such force that I struggled to stand. Shreds of cloud raced across the mountain top around and through the trees. Around and through me, battering me with cold. It felt as if the wind had roared over the North Pole and slammed into to me. I half-expected the stone cairns that marked the trail to be carried off and dropped in The Tarn or on some distant island.
I snapped a couple of photos and turned tail and descended out of the maelstrom, back into spring. Down from the realm of wind and into the embrace of granite. I descended the Schiff Path over bedrock wet and icy to the Ladder Trail. From there it was one long staircase down beside a cliff to The Tarn. As I hiked the Ladder Trail, I was struck by how irregular the stonework was. A huge undertaking to create a stunning trail, but it lacked the art and regularity of Dorr's work on Kurt Diederich's Climb and the Schiff, Emery, and Homan's Paths.